December 8, 2021

Crisis in Siria

There is a “100 percent” probability that the Syrian government will use chemical weapons again if the United States does not launch a military strike, Secretary of State John Kerry told members of the House Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel echoed Kerry’s remark, saying “very high” when asked by Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly about the likelihood of another Syrian chemical attack absent U.S. action.

The comments came as Obama’s top national security advisers presented their case on Wednesday to members of the House Foreign Relations Committee for a U.S. strike on Syria after the U.S. government accused President Bashar Assad’s forces of killing more than 1,000 people with chemical weapons on Aug. 21.

While Kerry, Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered questions from House lawmakers, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation on Wednesday afternoon authorizing President Barack Obama to strike Syria. The panel voted 10-7 to send the measure to the full Senate, with one senator voting present. The legislation, which could still face attempted amendments, is expected to face a final Senate vote next week.

House members took turns questioning Kerry about the cost of an attack, the role of international partners in implementing a strike and whether there was proof that Assad was truly behind the chemical attack on Syrian citizens.

“If we act in a unilateral way, I have huge concerns,” said New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks.  “I have yet to hear some concrete things about what the world is doing.”

Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot conceded to the panel that a majority of his constituents were urging him to vote down the resolution. “I do want to recognize some serious concerns,” Chabot said.

When delivering his opening remarks, Kerry reiterated what he told the Senate committee the day before, arguing that Assad “will read our silence as a signal that he can use his weapons with impunity.”

But later in the hearing, Kerry made a point to emphasize that the purpose of the strike on the Middle Eastern country was not regime change or even to end Assad’s assault on the Syrian people.

“It will not stop the butchery,” Kerry said when pressed by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tom Marino. “I wish it would.”

The intention, Kerry went on to say, was to “assert the principle” that governments should not use chemical weapons. Hagel added that those limited strikes would cost “tens of millions” of dollars to carry out.

Marino was not swayed, and he expressed his intention to vote against authorization to the panel.

During one exchange with South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, Hagel told lawmakers that Russia was responsible for providing some chemical weapons to Assad’s regime.

“There’s no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons, significant stockpiles of chemical weapons,” Hagel said. He added that the “Russians supply them. Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”

However, Kerry added later in the hearing, the U.S. would not risk a conflict with Russia if American forces attack Syria.

“Russia does not intend to fight a war over Syria.” Kerry said. “Syria does not rise to that level of a potential conflict.”

The “no” votes in the Senate panel on Wednesday included Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut as well as Republicans James Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Markey voted present.

Before the final vote, the committee beat back several attempts to restrict the president’s war-making powers, notably an amendment from Udall aiming to forbid U.S. warplanes from entering Syrian airspace and a broader one from Paul reasserting that the Constitution reserves war-declaring powers to Congress, not the president.  But the committee approved a nonbinding statement of policy asserting that America aims to change the momentum in Syria to promote a negotiated political settlement that facilitates the establishment of a democratic government.

The Senate panel also reaffirmed that U.S. strategy should be to degrade the Assad regime’s military capabilities, including his ability to use chemical weapons, even as Washington builds up “the lethal and nonlethal military capabilities” of moderate rebels.

Both modifications to the measure were crafted by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had previously warned he could not accept the measure as introduced, and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

For the Obama administration officials making the case before Congress, the House hearing was much smoother than the one before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a day earlier, when Kerry stumbled over a question about whether approving a strike against the Syrian government could result in a call for U.S. ground forces in the country. At first he said it could happen, and then he took back the remark.

“I don’t want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibilities, so let’s shut that door now, as tight as we can,” Kerry said.

On Wednesday, Kerry took pains to emphasize that the strike would be limited and would not require U.S. “boots on the ground” in the region.

“We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground,” he said. “The president has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war.”

Obama insisted on Wednesday that Congress and the world will lose credibility if Assad’s alleged chemical weapons massacre goes unpunished.

“My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line,” Obama said during a visit to Stockholm, Sweden.

Obama also bluntly stated during the Stockholm news conference that he does not need Congress’ permission to strike Syria, and he challenged Congress to do more than “sit on the sidelines (and) snipe.”

“As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress,” Obama said.

Leaders in the House and Senate have planned a debate about the authorization measure next week.

Olivier Knox contributed to this report.